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last word

10 ways to kill an organisation

Dr Leandro Herrero explains what can go wrong when managers Big Guy is just playing ego. By the time the toxicity
is revealed, half the project leaders have left in pur-
work to their own scripts and cast their staff in unsuitable roles, suit of a boss who knows less, and the other half
are either bored or enjoying their stock options.
as he talks us through the plot of his latest whodunnit Script 2: Let them fail
Subtitle: Wrong path but they need to see it
am talking here about the perfect murder, Hitch- for themselves.

cock style. Forget the arson attack on corporate
headquarters, or the mysterious disappearance of a
company into the annals of history (via a merger
and acquisition that merged nothing and acquired
all, including the logo and a name that ceased to exist
on day one of the union). Im talking about the sub-
tle poisoning of an organisation that goes unseen by
This script is acted out in paternalistic and
patronising organisations where senior manage-
ment has chronically mistaken a business organi-
sation for a primary school. Toxicity is very subtle
because its acted out in a so-called learning envi-
ronment where people learn by their mistakes
and are empowered to take risks. Suspicion is
many and only slightly suspected by some. Im talk- raised half way through the script when some peo-
ing about slow poisoning by professional assassins ple who fail are fired. The piece ends with people
with a hidden agenda. Im talking about a thriller having a good laugh as the CEO speaks highly
script in the husband-poisons-wife-with-small-doses- about knowledge management while collecting the
of-cyanide genre, where the poison is administered in Learning Organisation of the Year Award.
an apparently caring atmosphere. Script 3: Try harder
In some organisations its not that difficult to Subtitle: Guess what I want.
identify the prime suspects, the toxic managers. You Teams are always not quite there when pre-
might even know them well; you may even report to senting the results of a three-month analysis of the
them. There are two types the obviously obnox- problem, and they go back again and again to refine
ious, and the caring. One of them is very dangerous. their exploration. Eventually one project leader has
Thats right, its the one who cares, and who poi- a revelation and asks: Why dont you tell us what
sons under the duty of care. you want? That would save us from having to keep
So here are ten script outlines for an organisa- going back to the team.
tional thriller. You can Script 4: I have the answer, whats the
choose the heroes and vil- question?
There are two types of toxic lains you want Im just Subtitle: Been there, done that, trust me I
supplying the outline. You know.
manager: the obviously obnoxious can also choose the extras A variation on Script 1, this organisation is gov-
and the caring and the location. Ill be the erned by managers who constantly refer back to their
producer. If you get back to previous experiences. If its a management-change
me with a developed script, well try Hollywood programme, they bring the McKinsey templates
first, and share the profits. Alternatively we may try from their last companys M&A to the first start-up
business schools: the case-study industry is doing meeting. The answers are in there and they have
well and, quite frankly, anything is better than learn- them. If its an HR problem, they are super-psychol-
ing about the Toyota penetration of the US market ogists. If its a financial problem, they know because
and the ultimate maximisation of shareholder value theyve been there before. Reality is pretty much
in the car industry in Southern California. mapped out, causing staff to switch off creatively.
Script 1: I just know Sudden death occurs in this script when market con-
Subtitle: I just know that well do x, but go ditions change drastically, and the combined wisdom
and explore all the options. of those experienced managers cant compensate for
In this scenario, a senior manager not only openly the lack of new ideas and imagination.
relies on teams but declares himself the Great Script 5: Legitimised suicide
Defender of the Team Spirit. He nurtures and pro- Subtitle: You decide who is redundant this
tects his team. He makes a point of personally coach- is a very humane M&A.
ing all the project leaders, although this is received The story opens with M&A consulting gurus
with mixed feelings. He encourages the team to deciding its better to let the staff decide who will sur-
explore many possibilities, to be open-minded and vive, rather than burdening the leadership team with
see the big picture. But he just knows whats going such an inhumane decision. Divisional heads are
to happen. Confronted with a problem, he asks for gathered and handed a business plan and a timetable.
ideas, although he already knows the answer. This After several sleepless nights a good third of the man-
pattern is repeated several times, until the team agers and staff decide theyll be made redundant, so
begins to suspect its wasting its time and that the they leave. The trick in this script is that theres no

Scrip Magazine June 2003 File supplied with permission of PJB Publications Ltd 2003
last word

Subtitle: Great titles, great visibility, great

In this script, the organisations accountabilities
are well defined everybody knows what theyre
accountable for. But hidden, small doses of toxicity
come from giving staff the impression that they
have the accompanying authority. It turns out that
this simply isnt true. Authority lies elsewhere, with
people not very accountable for anything other than
accumulating as much authority as possible. Man-
agers egos are boosted with big accountable titles
such as Global Project Leader (a company equiva-
lent of UN Secretary General). A few staff discover
they have no real authority, and escape from the
organisation. Those trapped in become blind. The
Big Titles game is up when more and more man-
agers become suspicious of the mismatch of
Illustration by Rob Wilcockson

accountability and authority. The CEO responds by

creating a new layer of highly-accountable man-
agers with very sexy titles on their business cards.
Script 9: Great goals, great future, great cuts
Subtitle: Were doing well but youre fired.
Growth has been declared within the organisation,
Death by management: organisational visible murderer. Instead, a number of staff commit and its annual results arent bad. The CEO declares
poison can come in many forms, but
the effect on a company is almost mass suicide while singing a rousing chorus of What high hopes and possibilities. Almost simultaneously,
always fatal. a wonderful human death this is. The finale has a R&D is cut by 20% and those in the wrong place at
twist: two surviving divisional heads blame the lead- the wrong time are fired, regardless of their talents.
ership team for plainly relinquishing their responsi- The pattern repeats itself several times as the plot pro-
bilities and dressing the whole thing up as a demo- gresses, until a Pavlovian reflex develops: every time
cratic decision, while the CEO uses the case to show the CEO announces a good year, excellent results,
how humane, democratic and open the company is. we need to grow, staff tremble.
Script 6: Do but dont do Script 10: Frog boiling
Subtitle: Feel free to do, but make sure we Subtitle: There are two ways to boil a frog
tell you what. and you should be feeling a bit warm by now.
This story is set in a free environment where This is based on the old adage that there are two
people are encouraged to take all sorts of initiatives, ways to boil a frog. One way is to get a pot of boil-
to take action. Examples are numerous. On one occa- ing water and throw the frog in. The frog burns him-
sion a manager implements a programme she feels self, but hops out quickly and survives. The second
shes been encouraged to do. She is reprimanded and way is to put the frog into a pot of cold water and
de facto demoted. Puzzled and frustrated, she leaves. switch the heat on. The frog is very happy in his
Colleagues demand an explanation, but dont get progressively warm and cosy environment until he
very far. The script ends with highlights of collective boils without noticing. This script is offered for free
frustration when its discovered that this pattern of interpretation and application to the life of managers
do it, but dont do it is common across the board. in organisations.
Script 7: You are empowered to believe me Script 11 mathematics have never been my
Subtitle: We are all empowered, but I am forte is based on a combination of the other ten.
more empowered than others. In this script, managers believe all the previous
This plot borrows heavily from the We are all scripts are a bit of a joke, funny stories with ideas
equal but some of us are more equal than others barely elaborated on, certainly not a reflection of
concept. Empowerment is a heavily-used buzzword real life, a bit of amusement disguised as manage-
in the organisation and figures prominently in its ment thinking. Readers in script 11 mode perhaps
mission statement. Life is relatively peaceful until a feel rather warm and cosy. Please check that the
manager asks the question: What does it mean?. heat is off.
Infuriated senior management responds with a long
sermon on trust, culture, values and principles. Dr Leandro Herrero writes on a management
Small guy asks again: But what does it mean to be topic each month in Scrip Magazine. He heads
empowered? Big guy says, Look how empowered The Chalfont Project, an international professional
I am by the Board. Graffiti starts to appear on walls, services firm specialising in organisational consult-
doors and toilet partitions with unpleasant statements ing for the pharmaceutical industry. The Trouble
about the credibility of the company rhetoric. The with Management a collection of Dr Herreros
organisation slowly dies of buzzword intoxication. Last Words can be purchased from PJB Publica-
Script 8: Maximum accountability, minimum tions at 20.00 + 5.00 p&p. To order, please tele-
authority phone +44 (0)20 332 8965/66.

File supplied with permission of PJB Publications Ltd 2003 Scrip Magazine June 2003